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Image: Jesse Lenz

Three sisters walk along Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Their heads are covered with the traditional East African hijabs of their family’s native Somalia. The Boys and Girls Club is just two and a half blocks away. Within minutes they should be joining other southeast Seattle kids for after-school activities. At the corner of South Genesee they do just as the light instructs: They cross the street.

The driver of a maroon Chevy Tahoe runs a red light, plowing right into the youngest sister, seven-year-old Zeytuna Edo. The SUV drags Zeytuna to the sidewalk, leaving her face down in a bloody heap, and speeds away. 

The cops search for the vehicle for days. When they finally come across a maroon Tahoe they know they’ve found the right one. Pieces of Zeytuna’s clothes are still caught in the bumper.

She lies unconscious at Harborview Medical Center. In a coma all memory of the accident will be erased. But outside the hospital no one can forget.

Her name becomes a rallying cry. The city of Seattle must do more to protect its pedestrians, neighborhood leaders say, particularly in low-income communities. The plea matches a program the Seattle Department of Transportation had already set in motion: Vision Zero, intended to eliminate traffic fatalities. 

One of the program’s key projects is on Rainier Avenue—blocks from where Zeytuna was struck—where there have been 1,243 collisions in the last three years, resulting in 630 injuries and two fatalities, including 51 cases of cars crashing into pedestrians, dwarfing every other comparable street in the city.

City planners and environmentalists pushing more pedestrian-friendly urban designs, traditionally seen as meddling social engineers, now have a winning trump card: redesigning roads as social justice.

Standing at a whiteboard in SDOT’s offices, traffic engineer Jim Curtin sketches out the Tetris behind the city’s proposal to remove a lane from Rainier Ave in a way that will make the street safer for pedestrians but also improve things for cars. (Car-on-car crashes make up the majority of the collisions on Rainier, including 274 rear-end collisions.)

The plan, known as a road diet, is to reallocate the 50-plus-foot width of the street from its current four-lane configuration to two lanes, plus a dedicated center left-turn lane to reduce unpredictable turns into oncoming traffic, which accounted for 145 crashes. The leftover space on both sides of the street, Curtin says, could be dedicated to parking, bus lanes, or protected bike lanes.

Pointing to computer modeling, SDOT insists the redesign will add only two minutes to commute times in the worst-case scenario. Indeed, a report released by the U.S. Department of Transportation in June called out three earlier SDOT street redesigns—at Dexter, Nickerson, and Stone Way—as exemplars for improving safety and making major streets more multimodal while also making them more efficient. “The [Stone Way] corridor has sustained its capacity to carry the same number of motor vehicles,” the report noted, “in spite of the reduction in travel lanes.” 

Of course, pedestrian safety is the main focus. While pedestrian-involved collisions account for only 4 percent of collisions in Seattle, nearly half of all traffic fatalities—10 out of 23 in 2013—involve pedestrians. 

With fewer traffic lanes on Rainier, those on foot would have a shorter distance to cover at crosswalks. The design would also eliminate the “multiple threat” scenario, says Curtin, where drivers in the far lane can be a wild card. Finally, crosswalk signals would be reprogrammed to prioritize pedestrians.

“You haven’t lived in Seattle long. I have lived in Rainier Valley my whole life,” attorney Jeannie O’Brien lectured SDOT’s new director Scott Kubly in an angry email this spring, trashing the traffic safety proposal. 

O’Brien, president of the Lakewood Seward Park Community Club, views the plan as bad news for motorists, fearing that the pro-pedestrian fixes will muddle traffic and sap parking spaces. Irked by a presentation Kubly gave at a community meeting in April, in which he not only touted the safety plan but referenced what happened to Zeytuna Edo, O’Brien continued in her email, “Zeytuna laying in the middle of Martin Luther King Way…has nothing to do with motorists driving recklessly on Rainier Ave.”

But O’Brien, who refuses to speak to the media, is up against formidable agents for change: her neighbors.

Phyllis Porter is a 50-year-old African American mom, who, as a staffer for Rainier Valley Greenways, has led community organizing efforts for protected bike lanes and traffic calming measures. Her group has turned the pro-pedestrian agenda into a social justice issue, initially demanding, for example, that more money from the mayor’s transportation levy go toward safe routes to 28 of the city’s low-income schools. Porter, though, chuckles at the “equity” branding white liberals use to frame the debate, but offers: “Whatever it takes to get something done down here.”

This social justice bent for green planning has put traditional neighborhood activists like Jeannie O’Brien, who have historically been able to shoot down road redesigns as a pointy-headed “war on cars,” on the defensive.

The recent rash of life-threatening collisions—including the car that careened into a Rainier beauty salon, pinning three people to the wall—prompted Porter’s Rainier Valley Greenways to send their own missive to SDOT director Kubly. 

In the letter Porter and her comrades demanded longer walk times at crosswalks and lower speed limits for cars. “We aren’t just statistics,” they wrote. “At this point, many of us…fear walking across the street.”

Kubly agreed. “We’re looking at our data,” he says, “but they’re looking at their day-to-day quality of life.”

Zeytuna Edo remained at Harborview in a coma for a month. She spent another month recovering at Seattle Children’s hospital before returning home in a wheelchair to joyous family tears, says her older brother Hassan. The doctors at Harborview had originally told the family Zeytuna might not survive, that the family, which immigrated to Seattle—the father first in 2001, and the mother later in 2005—“should cross their fingers.”

She’s out of the wheelchair but “she is different than before,” Hassan, a truck driver, says. Though she doesn’t remember being hit, she now avoids the intersection. “She’s really scared. She says, ‘I’m not going to go there, I’m not going to go there,’ and she walks all the way around to another corner.” She walks with a limp.

In May, Phyllis Porter’s Rainier Valley Greenways staged a Day of Action in Columbia City’s business district, gathering signatures in support of lower speeds and SDOT’s proposed street safety redesign. It was a reversal of classic neighborhood resistance to urban planning from city hall.

Forty to 50 neighbors, one dressed in a chicken suit and carrying a sign (“How does the chicken cross the road?”), were out in force at the Columbia City Farmers Market calling for a city design that prioritized pedestrians over cars. Another prop at the rally was a get-well-soon card addressed to Rainier Ave. The group asked everyone who’d come out to support the cause to sign it.

Several weeks later it was impossible to look at the giant card propped against the wall in Porter’s office and miss, among the graffiti jumble of names, one particular signature, penned in bright-orange magic marker: “Zeytuna.”

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